Showdown looms in Longview

An aerial image of the EGT terminal. (photo courtesy of Port of Longview)

A showdown is coming in Longview, Washington. Some time in late January or early February, the first ship will come down the Columbia River to be loaded at a brand-new grain terminal — and will be confronted by union members, families, supporters, and Occupy Wall Street activists from Longview, Seattle, Portland, and Oakland.

The ship will be escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard. That intervention by the U.S. military in a domestic labor dispute drew a strongly worded resolution of condemnation Jan. 9 from the San Francisco Labor Council. Meanwhile, at the terminal, Port of Longview Berth 9, it’s expected that local police from multiple jurisdictions will stand guard.

Officially, the employer in the dispute is EGT, which is registered in Oregon as a limited liability corporation with offices at 101 SW Main St, Suite 1800, Portland. But EGT (Export Grain Terminal) is a stand-in for Bunge [Pronounced BUN-gee with a hard "g"], an agribusiness giant with operations in 40 countries. Bunge, valued at $8.5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange, has a 51 percent controlling interest in EGT, alongside two co-investors: ITOCHU Corporation of Japan and STX Pan Ocean Co. of South Korea.

EGT’s $200 million facility, constructed with nonunion workers, is on public land leased from the Port of Longview. The Port says its lease agreement with EGT requires the company to employ members of Longview-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21. But EGT is disputing that in federal court.

For a time, EGT met with Local 21, but negotiations broke off in early 2011: Local 21 would not agree to 12-hour shifts at straight-time pay, and the employer would not agree to use the union hiring hall to staff the terminal.

After EGT broke off negotiations with Local 21, it hired a construction contractor — General Construction — to staff the terminal under an agreement with Operating Engineers Local 701. ILWU picketed Local 701’s Gladstone, Oregon, office, but since has returned its focus to targeting EGT.

Now, Local 21 and the central labor council are calling on working people to support their struggle when the ship arrives.

The Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, passed a resolution Jan. 2 calling on “friends of labor and the 99% everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21, and to support them in any way possible in their fight against multinational conglomerate EGT.”

“This is the time for workers everywhere to take a stand,” declared Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Kyle Mackey, in a letter accompanying the resolution. “We are imploring all able working class people … to come to Longview, Washington for a historic protest.” Mackey is a member of ILWU Local 21.

Labor activists and participants in the Occupy movement are taking up that call. Occupy Wall Street in New York has made available $12,000 to help Occupy groups mobilize in Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. And activists are meeting in all three cities to plan rapid response for when the ship arrives. A multi-city working group of Occupy has been formed, and set up a web site, occupytheegt.org, where supporters can sign up for notifications by e-mail or text message, and coordinate rides and housing.

The plan of response is still being worked out, with talk of actions on land and water, but also concern about legal consequences. Kari Koch, a spokesperson for the working group, said that for legal reasons, the Occupy effort can’t coordinate directly with the ILWU. But inasmuch as participants will be mobilizing in Longview in support of local workers’ struggle against EGT,  Koch said participants will follow the lead of the local workers when the time comes.

ILWU itself is facing tremendous legal pressure. More than 200 people have been arrested in connection with protests over the terminal, and a federal judge has fined Local 21 $315,000 for conduct on the picket line.

In a Jan. 3 letter to all longshore locals, ILWU President Robert McEllrath said members are being “methodically and maliciously prosecuted” for exercising free speech rights.

“Locals need to be aware of the narrow path that we must cut through a federal labor law (the Taft-Hartley Act) that criminalizes worker solidarity, outlaw labor’s most effective tools, and protects commerce while severely restricting unions,” McEllrath wrote. “The ILWU’s labor dispute with EGT is symbolic of what is wrong in the United States today. Corporations, no matter how harmful the conduct to society, enjoy full state and federal protection while workers and the middle class get treated as criminals for trying to protect their jobs and communities.”

Activists don’t know when the ship will arrive, but they expect it to be in late January or early February. They may have as little as 12 hours notice.


[Editor’s Note: ILWU and Operating Engineers Local 701 are affiliates of the AFL-CIO at both the state and national levels. In September 2011, national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka nullified an Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board resolution condemning Local 701 in the dispute. “The work at issue involves a jurisdictional dispute,” Trumka wrote, pointing out that jurisdictional disputes are governed and settled by Article 20 of the AFL-CIO Constitution. “In view of these provisions, neither the Oregon AFL-CIO, nor any other AFL-CIO state, area, or local central body has authority to intervene or take sides.” “Let me be clear that this letter concerns simply the issue of the authority of the state federation to take action relating to jurisdictional disputes. This should not be construed as a judgment on the merits of the dispute,” Trumka concluded.]